30 December 2011

A Happy New Year

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following article was first published in the January 1868 issue of The Sword and the Trowel.

OUTHEY, in his "Solemn Thoughts for New Year's-day," bids the melancholy moraliser gather a dark and wintry wreath to engarland the sepulchre of time, "for" saith he,

"I pour the dirge of the departed days—
For well the funeral song
Befits this solemn hour."

His muse is, however, interrupted in its sombre meditations by the delightful peals which hail "the consecrated day," and the poet exclaims—

"But hark! even now the merry bells ring round
With clamorous joy to welcome in this day."

The interruption was most opportune: "the dark-stoled maid of melancholy, with stern and frowning front," may very fitly be dismissed until a more convenient season, for there is much that is cheery and exhilarating in the advent of "that blithe morn which ushers in the year." Hope, earth's one abiding angel, whispers of happiness now arriving, and makes our sluggish blood leap in our veins at the thought of the good new year. We feel like sailors who have finished one voyage and are commencing another amidst hurrahs and joyous shoutings: we are full of anticipation of the future, and are relieved by the departure of the past. The kindly salutation, "I wish you a happy new year," rings sweetly with lingering chimes of Christmas, and harmonises well with the merry peals which bid adieu to the departed, and welcome the coming Son of Time. The vision of thought in which we see "the skirts of the departing year," is viewed with sober cheerfulness, and the foresight of better days to come fills the house with social glee.

Human nature is so fascinated with the bare idea of novelty, that although time runs on like a river in whose current there is an unbroken monotony, yet the arbitrary landmarks which man has erected upon the shore, exercise a bewitching power over the imagination, and make us dream that on a New Year's morning the waves of time roll onward with a fresher force, and flash with a brighter sheen. There is no real difference between the first of January and any other day in the calendar—the first of May is lovelier far—and yet because of its association with a new period, it is a day of days, the day of the year, first among three hundred and more of comrades.

Evermore let it be so. If it be a foible to observe the season, then long live the weakness. We prize the pensive song in its season, but we are not among those "to whom all sounds of mirth are dissonant." The steaming flagon which our ancestors loved so well to drain, the lambs' wool, and the wassail bowl are as well forgotten, and other of their ancient New Year's customs are more honoured in the breach than in the observance; but not so the cheerful greetings and warm good wishes so suitable to the hour. We feel jubilant at the prospect of the coming day, and are half inclined to sing a verse or two of the old wassail ballad, and pass our hat round for our Orphan House.

"God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.

Good master and mistress,
While you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of those poor children
Who are wandering in the mire."

English life has too little of cheerful observance and festive anniversary to relieve its dulness; there are but two real breaks in the form of holidays in the whole twelve months of toil; birth-days and new-year's-days are at least semi-festivals, let them be kept up by all means, and celebrated by every family. Strew the path of labour with at least a few roses, for thorns are plentiful enough. Never may we cease to hail with pleasure the first day of the first month, which is the beginning of months unto us. Let not old Time turn over another page of eternity and truth, and find his children indifferent to the solemnity, or ungrateful for the longsuffering which permits them to enjoy their little span of life.

If others decline to unite with us, we are, nevertheless, not ashamed to confess that we adhere to the cheerful custom, and find it not inconsistent with the spirit of the church of God. We meet together at the last hour of the year, and prayerfully await the stroke of midnight, that we may consecrate the first moment of the new year with notes of holy song; then, having dropped each one of us his offering into the treasury of the Lord, we return to our homes in the clear frosty air, blessing the Preserver of men that we have shared in the devotions of one more watchnight, and have witnessed the birth of another year of grace.

If we do not hasten to the houses of our friends with presents and congratulations, as our lively French neighbours are wont to do, yet, with many an honest grip of the hand and cordial greeting, we utter our good wishes and renew our friendships; and then in our private devotions we "breathe low the secret prayer, that God would shed his blessing on the head of all."

Nor does the influence of our midnight worship end with the motion of our minds towards friendly well-wishing, for the devout are quickened in the way of godly meditation, and led to prepare for that day of days for which all other days were made. Returning from the solemn meeting we have felt as he did who wrote—

"The middle watch is past! Another year
Dawns on the human race with hope and fear:
The last has gone with mingled sigh and song,
To join for ever its ancestral throng;
And time reveals
As past it steals,
The potent hand of God, the Everlasting,
Guiding the sun, with all his blazing peers,
And filling up the measure of our years,
Until Messiah, Prince, to judgment hasting,
Shall roll the darkness from this world of sin,
And bid a bright eternity begin."

Wisdom is not content with sentiment and compliment, but would fain gather solid instruction: she admires the flowers, but she garners the wheat, and therefore she proposes the enquiry, "What is the message of the New Year to the watchers who listen so silently for the bell which strikes the twelfth hour of the night?"

O thou newly-sent prophet, hearken to the question of the wise, and tell us what is the burden of thy prophecy! We are all waiting; teach us, and we will learn! We discern not thy form as thou passest before our faces, but there is silence, and we hear thy voice, saying, "Mortals, before ye grow weary of me, and call me old and long, as ye did the year which has passed, I will deliver to you my tidings. As a new year, I bring with me the promise of new mercies, like a golden casket stored with jewels.

God will not forget you. The rock of your salvation changes not; your Father who is in heaven will still be gracious to you. Think not because the present is wintry, that the sun will never shine, for I have in store for you both the lovely flowers of spring and the ripe fruits of summer, while autumn's golden sheaves shall follow in their season. The black wing of the raven shall vanish, and the voice of the turtle shall be heard in your land. Providence has prepared surprises of gladness for the sorrowful; unexpected boons will it cast into the lap of the needy; therefore let hope, like a dove, bear to the mourner the olive branch of peace, for the waters of grief shall be assuaged.

Fresh springs shall bubble up amid the wastes, and new-lit stars shall cheer the gloom; the angel of Jehovah's presence goes before you, and makes the desert blossom as the rose. He who makes all things new will send his mercies new every morning, and fresh every evening, for great is his faithfulness.

Yet boast not yourselves of to-morrow, nor even make sure of to-day, for I forewarn you of new trials and novel difficulties. In the unknown future, the days of darkness shall be many; rains will descend, floods will arise, and winds will blow, and blessed shall he be whose house is built upon a rock. Crosses will be laid upon you for every hour, and cares will molest every day. Pilgrims of earth, ye must hold yourselves ready to traverse thorny ways, which your feet have not trodden heretofore; have your loins well girt about you, lest the trials of the wilderness should come upon you unawares. Your road leads o'er the barren mountain's storm-vex'd height, and anon it dives into the swampy sunless valleys, and along it all you must bear more or less of affliction's heavy load; arm yourselves with patience and faith, for you will need them every step of the march to "Jerusalem the Golden." So surely as "the wintry wind moans deep and hollow o'er the leafless grove," tribulation will await you frequently, for man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. Adversity is an estate entailed upon the sons of Adam. Learn this before it come to pass, that when it is come to pass, ye may not be surprised with any amazement.

Be not, O children of God, dismayed at my message, neither let your harps be hung upon the willows, for I bring you tidings of new grace, proportionate to all your needs. Great is the strength which your covenant God will give you in the hour of your weakness, so great indeed that if all the afflictions of all mankind should meet upon the head of any one of you, he should yet be more than a conqueror through the mighty Lord who hath loved him. Onward, soldiers of the cross, where Jesus has led the way. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath you are the everlasting arms. You are not called upon to go a warfare at your own charges, neither are you left alone in the battle: the banner which waves over you bears the soul-assuring motto, 'Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord will provide.'

Labourer in the vineyard of the Lord Jesus, I bring to thee new opportunities for usefulness; I introduce thee to fresh fields of service. Many great and effectual doors shall be opened during the twelve months of my sojourn, and they who are wise to win souls shall have grace to enter. The moments as they fly, if taken upon the wing, shall yield a wealth of sacred opportunity: the frivolous shall ruin himself by suffering them to pass unheeded, while the watchful shall earn unto himself a good degree, by regarding the signs of the times and improving every occasion for promoting his Master's glory.

Therefore, with earnest tones, I warn you that I bring new responsibilities, from which none of you can escape. For every golden moment you will be held responsible. O stewards of the manifold gifts of God, waste not your strength upon trifles, cast not away your priceless opportunities, fritter not away your precious hours: by the remembrance of eternity, I charge you live with an ardour of industry which will be worthy of remembrance in another world. O child of time, lay not up for thyself misery in the remembrance of misspent years, but live as in the presence of the all-seeing God. Believer in Jesus, gather jewels for his crown, and irradiate his name with glowing honours, so, as I pass away, thy record shall be on high, and thy reward in heaven. FAREWELL."

C. H. Spurgeon

29 December 2011

Teaching the Word in a closed country: interview with Prof. Jim Hamilton

by Dan Phillips

Even we nobodies can have well-known friends, often (these days) of the "cyber-" variety. One of my jewels of such a friend is Professor Jim Hamilton of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim maintains a blog that's one of my daily stops, and is author of and contributor to a number of books. His recent magnificent work of Biblical Theology, God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment, should be on everyone's "best of 2011" list. Jim also did me the great kindness of endorsing both of my books.

Among the many things I love about Jim is that he is the sort of Christian academic one sees too seldom. That is, his diligence in scholarship does not come at the expense of a clear and urgent love for God and His truth. There never should have been a disconnect between the two; indeed, none is evident in Jim's writing or preaching and teaching.

Professor Hamilton recently had a golden opportunity to teach the Word in a spiritually dark country that is closed to the free open proclamation of the Gospel. To protect current workers there, as well as future opportunities, we're being a bit fuzzy on which of the many closed countries it was. (Please refrain from guessing out-loud; there are many such countries still. I will delete speculation, without further explanation). God does know, and your lack of specifics won't prevent your praying for Jim and those whom he taught.

I understand you just had an unusual teaching mission. Where was it, and what were you doing?

Security concerns don't allow me to name exactly where I was, but the country is in the top 20 worst places for the persecution of Christians. For the most part Christians there don't seem to be in physical danger, though they could be subject to fines, imprisonment, harassment, or worse. There are stories of Christians from that country disappearing. As the country's economic standing in the world improves, they seem to be growing more tolerant of Christians (in part, no doubt, to avoid international protests against human rights violations). They seem, however, to consider it a loss of face for westerners to enter their country to teach their people.

It was my privilege to go to that land of darkness, where the government tries to set limits on how the light can shine. Opening the Bible is like pulling back curtains on a sunny day in Arizona. The light floods every corner of the room: the power of truth is bigger than man's wicked attempts to suppress it.

I was taken to an apartment building on the outskirts of a major city, and since tourists don't typically go there I was basically under house-arrest. If I had gone out of the building, I would have been conspicuous, so I stayed indoors, mostly avoided windows, and the word of God was not bound.

By God's grace, through our adventures in God's word and the Christian fellowship, I basically didn't notice that I wasn't leaving the building.

Have you ever done this before?

Not in a closed country. I taught in formerly communist Romania for a week in 2007, but since Romania is no longer communist, there was no need for secrecy.

What led to this opportunity?

The man on the ground there is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He graduated right before I joined the faculty, and I was recommended to him. A colleague of mine had already been there, and others were lined up to go when I was invited. So though we didn't know one another personally, there were various connections between us.

Who were you teaching?

There were 23 students from all over the country.

It was humbling to stand before these 21 men and 2 women who have suffered for the gospel and were risking a lot more than I ever have. They are in an ongoing training program. Their knowledge of the school there comes largely by word of mouth, and it seems that the theology embraced by the likes of Spurgeon is what draws them to this particular school.

What did you teach?

I taught Genesis–Esther. The first part of the true story of the world. What a blessing to have the Bible!

How was the reception?

It is so encouraging to teach people who have experienced Psalm 19:9-10, "the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb."

God's people love God's word. The Bible is a subtle book, though, and it's not always easy to see how later biblical authors have interpreted what earlier biblical authors wrote. It is God's rich mercy to get to serve God's people by helping them see the intrinsic connections, the inner logic of the most important book in the world.

The word of God is living and active. It is able to make us wise unto salvation. It is all profitable. For two weeks, we the thirsty, we who had no money, delighted ourselves on the richest of fare (Isa 55). "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to thy name give glory, because of thy lovingkindness, because of thy truth" (Ps 115:1, NASB).

How did the scene you encountered there compare to your expectations?

Having heard so much about the way eastern people supposedly think differently than westerners, I was surprised to find them thinking about the Bible in basically the same ways we do. I got the same kinds of questions I get when I teach at SBTS. In fact, there were moments when I would say something, and while it was being translated, I would think to myself: If I had just said that in a classroom back home, someone would ask me this question. Then a hand would shoot up and that very question would be asked. Brilliant!

At some points, no offense to my Stateside students, better questions were asked by these brothers and sisters.

Did you ever feel yourself to be in any danger?

No, I think the worst they would have done to me was probably put me in a hotel for a day or two while they processed my expulsion from the country. So the concern wasn't so much physical danger as a desire to avoid jeopardizing the ongoing work there. It would be a shame for people who have been a long time in that country, building wide networks, learning the language, and sowing for decades, to be expelled.

What did you take away from this opportunity? What would you say to our readers?

I am so encouraged by the way our brothers and sisters in a different culture on the other side of the world are living on the same sound doctrine that we embrace. The Lord Jesus is keeping his word. He promised to build his church, and he's doing it. He purchased people from every tribe. He sends his servants to make disciples of all nations, equipping them with the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation, and the gates of hell will not stand against him.

This is better than Aslan being on the move. It's better than Aragorn's return to Gondor.

The true King of the world is making things ready for the day when he will return to reign, when his bride will be clothed in white because of his righteousness. On that day he will finally deliver his people and defeat his enemies.

The romance of orthodoxy is the most thrilling thing in the world, and we have this chance to fight the good fight for the King who will come, this chance to take up our crosses and follow him, this chance to proclaim the truth when it seems preposterous, to sacrifice for the world's greatest cause, to live out the gospel in our marriages, to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and to love one another as we have been loved.

"Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore . . ." (Eph 6:13–14). And there's no contradiction between the call to stand and the call to "Go . . . and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:19).

Thanks for giving us a taste of your ministry. God bless your future efforts!

Dan Phillips's signature

28 December 2011

Give An Account in the New Year

by Frank Turk

This is a carry-over from my TeamPyro post from 2009, so forgive me for cross-blogging, and traversing the space-time continuum to do it.

One of our readers over there said this:
It’s well accepted that 1 Peter 3:15 forms the basis for the entire concept of apologetics. But for our purpose, let’s keep it simple, without straying into the specific aspects of apologetics theory.
And to that I say “poppycock”.

Before I tread one word further in my disabusing of that fallacy, I know that this verse is one of the theme verses of Alpha Omega Ministries, and it’s important to note two things about their use of that verse:
[1] They do not say about it what this reader said about it, and
[2] They use it exactly as Peter does use it, not anticipating that every Christian will be a debating machine.

So when this reader says his piece here about 1Pet 3:15, he’s putting himself out on a limb which, if he were an adequate apologist and a reasonable commentator, he wouldn’t do. This verse is not hardly “the entire basis for the concept of apologetics”. And frankly, I’m not the first one to say so. Here’s the Geneva Study Bible on this passage:
He will have us, when we are afflicted for righteousness sake, to be careful not for redeeming of our life, either with denying or renouncing the truth, or with like violence, or any such means: but rather to give an account of our faith boldly, and yet with a meek spirit, and full of godly reverence, that the enemies may not have anything justly to object, but may rather be ashamed of themselves.”
Here’s the emminant John Gill on the same passage:
Now, a ‘reason’ of this is to be given; not that they are to account for the Gospel, upon the foot of carnal reason; for that is not of men, nor according to the carnal reason of men. Nor is it to be thought that every Christian should be capable of defending the Gospel, either in whole, or in part, by arguments and reasons, in a disputatious way, or to give a reason and argument for every particular truth, but that he should be well acquainted with the ground and foundation of the Christian religion. At least, with the first principles of the oracles of God, and be conversant with the Scriptures, and be able to point out that in them, which is the reason of his holding this and the other truth, though he is not able to give a gainsayer satisfaction, or to stop his mouth.

And this is to be done with meekness and fear; with meekness, before men; in an humble modest way; not with an haughty air, and in a morose and surly manner, which serves only to irritate and provoke: and with fear; either of God, and so the Ethiopic Version renders it, with the fear of the Lord. Considering the subject of the argument, and the importance of it, and how much the honour of God is concerned in it; and taking care lest the answer should be delivered in a light, trifling, and negligent manner, and that no part of truth be dropped or concealed, in order to please men, and be screened from their resentments; or with all due reverence of, and respect to men, to superiors, to the civil magistrates, who may ask the reason; for they are to be treated with honour and esteem, and to be answered in an handsome and becoming manner, suitable to the dignity of their persons and office ...
And for laughs, here’s John Calvin on that passage:
But it ought to be noticed, that Peter here does not command us to be prepared to solve any question that may be mooted; for it is not the duty of all to speak on every subject. But it is the general doctrine that is meant, which belongs to the ignorant and the simple. Then Peter had in view no other thing, than that Christians should make it evident to unbelievers that they truly worshipped God, and had a holy and good religion. And in this there is no difficulty, for it would be strange if we could bring nothing to defend our faith when any one made inquiries respecting it. For we ought always to take care that all may know that we fear God, and that we piously and reverently regard his legitimate worship.

This was also required by the state of the times: the Christian name was much hated and deemed infamous; many thought the sect wicked and guilty of many sacrileges. It would have been, therefore, the highest perfidy against God, if, when asked, they had neglected to give a testimony in favor of their religion. And this, as I think, is the meaning of the word apology, which Peter uses, that is, that the Christians were to make it evident to the world that they were far off from every impiety, and did not corrupt true religion, on which account they were suspected by the ignorant.
You know: because we say we’re “Calvinists”, right?

What this passage is talking about – as these learned men make clear – is that Peter is not establishing the office of apologist here: Peter is calling the believer to respond in trial and persecution with the testimony of the Gospel and not the mace and broadsword of argumentation.

You’re not trying to shut anyone up if you abide by 1Pet 3:15, but the only way to see that is to see how Peter has positioned this statement in his larger exhortation.
    Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. [ESV]
The first thing we have to recognize – and by “have to” I mean “in order that we understand what Peter actually says” – is that Peter is not talking about what happens every day in the life of the Christian here. This is not an exortation for what you do at lunch when someone starts yammering about the new Dan Brown book or what have you. This is what one ought to do “if [one] should suffer for righteousness’ sake”. That’s a far cry from the raison d’etre for blogging or writing books, isn’t it? Peter is talking about the martyr’s role, the persecution which will come to some.

But the next thing we have to notice here is that there’s no fear motive in this passage. Peter actually says, “have no fear”, right? So the reason for doing whatever it is one is doing here is the motive to honor Christ.

Think about that, legions of warrior children: elsewhere Paul instructs Titus that we should “adorn the Gospel”, and here Peter instructs those in persecution to “honor Christ”. And we have to wonder what kind of “honor” it is that is full of “gentleness and respect”, but not actually specifically said to be (for example) systematic, argumentative, logical, philosophical, fully-reasoned, or convincing.

That is not to say it would be just a bunch of blubbering when you’re in trouble – but it is to say that Peter is here saying that whatever it is you will do, it will be “good behavior” which put slanders and reviling “to shame”.

And let me suggest something to you about “a reason for the hope that is in you”: When Peter does this at Pentecost, it’s not a philosophical display of forensic acumen. When Stephen does it at his stoning, he didn’t appeal to the Cosmological argument. When Paul was at Mars Hill or before Agrippa, we didn’t address the existential matter of the problem of evil.

To these men – who are our examples – the “defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” is that Christ has died and risen from the dead.

If that’s what you want to call “apologetics”, then it turns out you are saying what I am saying. But look around you – seriously: look at all the “apologists” running around starting fights for Jesus with unbelievers. Is that what Peter was talking about here – being the WWE champion of apologetics for Jesus?

There’s no way that’s what Peter’s talking about here – yet that’s what most “lay apologists” for the faith do every day. Let’s stop doing what we want to do here and start doing what Peter actually asks us to do here – and stop pretending that we’re “apologists”. Let’s be disciples first, and foremost, and crawl out of our books and walk into people’s lives in a way that actually causes them to ask us what kind of hope causes that – in an unironic way.

So Happy New Year -- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Should Old Acquaintance Be forgot and so on.  Make next year a year for Christ's sake and not a year for making the wrong kind of offense.

27 December 2011

Bible reading for 2012, and why

by Dan Phillips

Nate Bingham posts a nifty list of reading plans. All sorts of blogs are pointing you to reading plans. Let me help by leaning on and applying some why pressure, along with the what.

If you bumbled through 2011 without a plan, you really should adopt one. If you are a Christian and have never yet read through the entire Bible — which should be a perfect application of the word "inconceivable" — you really really should adopt a plan.

Why a plan? One is mindful of the possibly apocryphal story of the evangelist who was set upon by a critic, who announced, "Sir, I do not like your methods!" The man replied, "I am always glad to hear of a better approach. What is yours?" The critic stammered, "Why, I...I don't have one."

"I like mine better" was the response. And while pragmatism is a baneful worldview, there is something to be said for a touch of it once one has set on the needed goal within a God-centered worldview. Find the goal that pleases God, then figure out how to get there from here.

But what is the goal? God's vision for His church is very every-member, every-part, isn't it? Christ died for all of His people, not more for some and less for others (2 Cor. 5:14-15). God raised all believers to spiritual life by sovereign grace (Eph. 2:1ff.). Christ baptized all believers into His body in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), and thus constituted all of them as functional parts of that body, with a useful ministry for all of us (1 Cor. 12-14). The gifted men serve the local church that all parts of it may grow into doctrinal stability and maturity, by the contribution of each and every part of that body (Eph. 4:10-16). And that is why the letters of the New Testament are by and large addressed to all believers, to the extent that most of Paul's letters derive their names from the local churches to which each is sent.

That being the case, what is each of our part, in showing proper faith and fear and honor to God? After all, if we say we are Christians, are we not saying we are disciples (Acts 11:26)? And if we say we are disciples, do we not know that the word means "students"? And if so, what do we imagine that we are to study? Do we not even know that our Lord Himself defined in so many words what He intends our course of study and life to consist of?
 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,  and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
Well, there it is, isn't it?
  • If we want to be free, we must know the truth
  • If we want to know the truth, we must truly be Christ's disciples
  • If we want to be Christ's disciples, we must continue in His word
This is not a process that another can do for us. My wife can't eat for me. My children can't drink for me. Our pastor can't grow for us, or learn for us. Each of us must do what God has pressed on us.

But isn't the mere fact that I even need to make this case itself a sign of the wretched state of the church? I don't have to talk my kids into eating chocolate or cookies. By saying we are Christians, aren't we at least saying we believe God? Don't we even know that much? And do we know what God says about the value of His word (Ps. 1; 119, and on and on)?

Apparently not.

But here we are at this blog, all professedly big tough healthy Bible believers. Yet I know as sure as I am sitting here typing, that there are those reading who do not match walk to talk, practice to theory. I'm not here to rail at you; God knows my life does not measure up to my theory in all respects. But God helping me, I'm working at it, and I'm doing so with the loving prods and pokes of brothers and sisters.

And that is what this is for you: a loving prod, a loving poke.

You've got a good theory. Now do it. Pick a plan. Any plan is better than no plan. Play to your strength. If you're a morning person, read it first thing (this is what I found decades ago to be my path). If not, do it in the evening or midday. There is no law for a time to pick; but there is a law to do it. Pick a plan, pick a time, and do it. Be at it. Do what works. Don't scale the Alps in one day, but do set foot on the slope; and then another, and then another, and then another.


Dan Phillips's signature

24 December 2011

Joy Born at Bethlehem

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. This week we feature a full sermon.

"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."—Luke 2:10-12.

E HAVE NO superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Saviour; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority. Superstition has fixed most positively the day of our Saviour's birth, although there is no possibility of discovering when it occurred. Fabricius gives a catalogue of 136 different learned opinions upon the matter; and various divines invent weighty arguments for advocating a date in every month in the year. It was not till the middle of the third century that any part of the church celebrated the nativity of our Lord; and it was not till very long after the Western church had set the example, that the Eastern adopted it. Because the day is not known, therefore superstition has fixed it; while, since the day of the death of our Saviour might be determined with much certainty, therefore superstition shifts the date of its observance every year. Where is the method in the madness of the superstitious? Probably the fact is that the holy days were arranged to fit in with heathen festivals. We venture to assert, that if there be any day in the year, of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which the Saviour was born, it is the twenty-fifth of December. Nevertheless since, the current of men's thoughts is led this way just now, and I see no evil in the current itself, I shall launch the bark of our discourse upon that stream, and make use of the fact, which I shall neither justify nor condemn, by endeavoring to lead your thoughts in the same direction. Since it is lawful, and even laudable, to meditate upon the incarnation of the Lord upon any day in the year, it cannot be in the power of other men's superstitions to render such a meditation improper for to-day. Regarding not the day, let us, nevertheless, give God thanks for the gift of his dear son.

In our text we have before us the sermon of the first evangelist under the gospel dispensation. The preacher was an angel, and it was meet it should be so, for the grandest and last of all evangels will be proclaimed by an angel when he shall sound the trumpet of the resurrection, and the children of the regeneration shall rise into the fullness of their joy. The key-note of this angelic gospel is joy—"I bring unto you good tidings of great joy." Nature fears in the presence of God—the shepherds were sore afraid. The law itself served to deepen this natural feeling of dismay; seeing men were sinful, and the law came into the world to reveal sin, its tendency was to make men fear and tremble under any and every divine revelation. The Jews unanimously believed that if any man beheld supernatural appearances, he would be sure to die, so that what nature dictated, the law and the general beliefs of those under it also abetted. But the first word of the gospel ended all this, for the angelic evangelist said, "Fear not, behold I bring you good tidings." Henceforth, it is to be no dreadful thing for man to approach his Maker; redeemed man is not to fear when God unveils the splendor of his majesty, since he appears no more a judge upon his throne of terror, but a Father unbending in sacred familiarity before his own beloved children.

The joy which this first gospel preacher spoke of was no mean one, for he said, "I bring you good tidings"—that alone were joy: and not good tidings of joy only, but "good tidings of great joy." Every word is emphatic, as if to show that the gospel is above all things intended to promote, and will most abundantly create the greatest possible joy in the human heart wherever it is received. Man is like a harp unstrung, and the music of his soul's living strings is discordant, his whole nature wails with sorrow; but the son of David, that mighty harper, has come to restore the harmony of humanity, and where his gracious fingers move among the strings, the touch of the fingers of an incarnate God brings forth music sweet as that of the spheres, and melody rich as a seraph's canticle. Would God that all men felt that divine hand.

In trying to open up this angelic discourse this morning, we shall note three things: the joy which is spoken of; next, the persons to whom this joy comes; and then, thirdly, the sign, which is to us a sign as well as to these shepherds—a sign of the birth and source of joy.

I. First, then, THE JOY, which is mentioned in our text—whence comes it, and what is it?

We have already said it is a "great joy"—"good tidings of great joy." Earth's joy is small, her mirth is trivial, but heaven has sent us joy immeasurable, fit for immortal minds. Inasmuch as no note of time is appended, and no intimation is given that the message will ever be reversed, we may say that it is a lasting joy, a joy which will ring all down the ages, the echoes of which shall be heard until the trumpet brings the resurrection; aye, and onward for ever and for ever. For when God sent forth the angel in his brightness to say, "I bring you good tidings of great joy, which be to all people," he did as much as say, "From this time forth it shall be joy to the sons of men; there shall be peace to the human race, and goodwill towards men for ever and for ever, as long as there is glory to God in the highest." O blessed thought! the Star of Bethlehem shall never set. Jesus, the fairest among ten thousand, the most lovely among the beautiful, is a joy for ever.

Since this joy is expressly associated with the glory of God, by the Words, "Glory to God in the highest," we may be quite clear that it is a pure and holy joy. No other would an angel have proclaimed, and, indeed, no other joy is joy. The wine pressed from the grapes of Sodom may sparkle and foam, but it is bitterness in the end, and the dregs thereof are death; only that which comes from the clusters of Eschol is the true wine of the kingdom, making glad the heart of God and man. Holy joy is the joy of heaven, and that, be ye sure, is the very cream of joy. The joy of sin is a fire-fountain, having its source in the burning soil of hell, maddening and consuming those who drink its fire-water; of such delights we desire not to drink. It were to be worse than damned to be happy in sin, since it is the beginning of grace to be wretched in sin, and the consummation of grace to be wholly escaped from sin, and to shudder even at the thought of it. It is hell to live in sin and misery, it is a deep lower still when men could fashion a joy in sin. God save us from unholy peace and from unholy joy! The joy announced by the angel of the nativity is as pure as it is lasting, as holy as it is great. Let us then always believe concerning the Christian religion that it has its joy within itself, and holds its feasts within its own pure precincts, a feast whose viands all grow on holy ground. There are those who, to-morrow, will pretend to exhibit joy in the remembrance of our Saviour's birth, but they will not seek their pleasure in the Saviour: they will need many additions to the feast before they can be satisfied. Joy in Immanuel would be a poor sort of mirth to them. In this country, too often, if one were unaware of the name, one might believe the Christmas festival to be a feast of Bacchus, or of Ceres, certainly not a commemoration of the Divine birth. Yet is there cause enough for holy joy in the Lord himself, and reasons for ecstasy in his birth among men. It is to be feared that most men imagine that in Christ there is only seriousness and solemnity, and to them consequently weariness, gloom, and discontent; therefore, they look out of and beyond what Christ allows, to snatch from the tables of Satan the delicacies with which to adorn the banquet held in honor of a Saviour. Let it not be so among you. The joy which the gospel brings is not borrowed but blooms in its own garden. We may truly say in the language of one of our sweetest hymns—

"I need not go abroad for joy,
I have a feast at home,
My sighs are turned into songs,
My heart has ceased to roam.

Down from above the Blessed Dove
Has come into my breast,
To witness his eternal love,
And give my spirit rest."

Let our joy be living water from those sacred wells which the Lord himself has digged; may his joy abide in us, that our joy may be full. Of Christ's joy we cannot have too much; no fear of running to excess when his love is the wine we drink. Oh to be plunged in this pure stream of spiritual delights!

But why is it that the coming of Christ into the world is the occasion of joy? The answer is as follows:—First, because it is evermore a joyous fact that God should be in alliance with man, especially when the alliance is so near that God should in very deed take our manhood into union with his godhead; so that God and man should constitute one divine, mysterious person. Sin had separated between God and man; but the incarnation bridges the separation: it is a prelude to the atoning sacrifice, but it is a prelude full of the richest hope. From henceforth, when God looks upon man, he will remember that his own Son is a man. From this day forth, when he beholds the sinner, if his wrath should burn, he will remember that his own Son, as man, stood in the sinner's place, and bore the sinner's doom. As in the case of war, the feud is ended when the opposing parties intermarry, so there is no more war between God and man, because God has taken man into intimate union with himself. Herein, then, there was cause for joy.

But there was more than that, for the shepherds were aware that there had been promises made of old which had been the hope and comfort of believers in all ages, and these were now to be fulfilled. There was that ancient promise made on the threshold of Eden to the first sinners of our race, that the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent's head; another promise made to the Father of the faithful that in his seed should all the nations of the earth be blessed, and promises uttered by the mouths of prophets and of saints since the world began. Now, the announcement of the angel of the Lord to the shepherds was a declaration that the covenant was fulfilled, that now in the fullness oftime God would redeem his word, and the Messiah, who was to be Israel's glory and the world's hope; was now really come. Be glad ye heavens, and be joyful O earth, for the Lord hath done it, and in mercy hath he visited his people. The Lord hath not suffered his word to fail, but hath fulfilled unto his people his promises. The time to favor Zion, yea the set time, is come. Now that the scepter is departed from Judah, behold the Shiloh comes, the Messenger of the covenant suddenly appears in his temple!

But the angel's song had in it yet fuller reason for joy; for our Lord who was born in Bethlehem came as a Saviour. "Unto you is born this day a Saviour." God had come to earth before, but not as a Saviour. Remember that terrible coming when there went three angels into Sodom at night-fall, for the Lord said, "I will go now and see whether it be altogether according to the cry thereof." He had come as a spy to witness human sin, and as an avenger to lift his hand to heaven, and bid the red fire descend and burn up the accursed cities of the plain. Horror to the world when God thus descends. If Sinai smokes when the law is proclaimed, the earth itself shall melt when the breaches of the law are punished. But now not as an angel of vengeance, but as a man in mercy God has come; not to spy out our sin, but to remove it; not to punish guilt, but to forgive it. The Lord might have come with thunderbolts in both his hands he might have come like Elias to call fire from heaven; but no, his hands are full of gifts of love, and his presence is the guarantee of grace. The babe born in the manger might have been another prophet of tears, or another son of thunder, but he was not so: he came in gentleness, his glory and his thunder alike laid aside.

"'Twas mercy filled the throne,
And wrath stood silent by,
When Christ on the kind errand came
To sinners doomed to die."

Rejoice, ye who feel that ye are lost; your Saviour comes to seek and save you. Be of good cheer ye who are in prison, for be comes to set you free. Ye who are famished and ready to die, rejoice that he has consecrated for you a Bethlehem, a house of bread, and he has come to be the bread of life to your souls. Rejoice, O sinners, everywhere for the restorer of the castaways, the Saviour of the fallen is born. Join in the joy, ye saints, for he is the preserver of the saved ones, delivering them from innumerable perils, and he is the sure prefecter of such as he preserves. Jesus is no partial Saviour, beginning a work and not concluding it; but, restoring and upholding, he also prefects and presents the saved ones without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing before his Father's throne. Rejoice aloud all ye people, let your hills and valleys ring with joy, for a Saviour who is mighty to save is born among you.

Nor was this all the holy mirth, for the next word has also in it a fullness of joy:—"a Saviour, who is Christ," or the Anointed. Our Lord was not an amateur Saviour who came down from heaven upon an unauthorized mission; but he was chosen, ordained, and anointed of God; he could truly say, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me." Here is great comfort for all such as need a Saviour; it is to them no mean conslation that God has himself authorized Christ to save. There can be no fear of a jar between the mediator and the judge, no peril of a nonacceptance of our Saviour's work; because God has commissioned Christ to do what he has done, and in saving sinners he is only executing his Fathers own will. Christ is here called "the anointed." All his people are anointed, and there were priests after the order of Aaron who were anointed, but he is the anointed, "anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows;" so plenteously anointed that, like the unction upon Aaron's head, the sacred anointing of the Head of the church distils in copious streams, till we who are like the skirts of his garments are made sweet with the rich perfume. He is "the anointed" in a threefold sense: as prophet to preach the gospel with power; as priest to offer sacrifice; as king to rule and reign. In each of these he is preeminent; he is such a teacher, priest, and ruler as was never seen before. In him was a rare conjunction of glorious offices, for never did prophet, priest, and king meet in one person before among the sons of men, nor shall it ever be so again. Triple is the anointing of him who is a priest after the order of Melchisedec, a prophet like unto Moses, and a king of whose dominion there is no end. In the name of Christ, the Holy Ghost is glorified, by being seen as anointing the incarnate God. Truly, dear brethren, if we did but understand all this, and receive it into our hearts, our souls would leap for joy on this Sabbath day, to think that there is born unto us a Saviour who is anointed of the Lord.

One more note, and this the loudest, let us sound it well and hear it well— "which is Christ the Lord." Now the word Lord, or Kurios, here used is tantamount to Jehovah. We cannot doubt that, because it is the same word used twice in the ninth verse, and in the ninth verse none can question that it means Jehovah. Hear it, "And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them." And if this be not enough, read the 23rd verse, "As it is written in the law of the Lord, every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord." Now the word Lord here assuredly refers to Jehovah, the one God, and so it must do here. Our Saviour is Christ, God, Jehovah. No testimony to his divinity could be plainer; it is indisputable. And what joy there is in this; for suppose an angel had been our Saviour, he would not have been able to bear the load of my sin or yours; or if anything less than God had been set up as the ground of our salvation, it might have been found too frail a foundation. But if he who undertakes to save is none other than the Infinite and the Almighty, then the load of our guilt can be carried upon such shoulders, the stupendous labor of our salvation can be achieved by such a worker, and that with ease: for all things are possible with God, and he is able to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by him. Ye sons of men perceive ye here the subject of your joy. The God who made you, and against whom you have offended, has come down from heaven and taken upon himself your nature that he might save you. He has come in the fullness of his glory and the infinity of his mercy that he might redeem you. Do you not welcome this news? What! will not your hearts be thankful for this? Does this matchless love awaken no gratitude? Were it not for this divine Saviour, your life here would have been wretchedness, and your future existence would have been endless woe. Oh, I pray you adore the incarnate God, and trust in him. Then will you bless the Lord for delivering you from the wrath to come, and as you lay hold of Jesus and find salvation in his name, you will tune your songs to his praise, and exult with sacred joy. So much concerning this joy.

II. Follow me while I briefly speak of THE PEOPLE to whom this joy comes. Observe how the angel begins, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day." So, then, the joy began with the first who heard it, the shepherds. "To you," saith he; "for unto you is born." Beloved hearer, shall the joy begin with you to-day?—for it little avails you that Christ was born, or that Christ died, unless unto you a child is born, and for you Jesus bled. A personal interest is the main point. "But I am poor," saith one. So were the shepherds. O ye poor, to you this mysterious child is born. "The poor have the gospel preached unto them." "He shall judge the poor and needy, and break in pieces the oppressor." But I am obscure and unknown," saith one. So were the watchers on the midnight plain. Who knew the men who endured hard toil, and kept their flocks by night? But you, unknown of men, are known to God: shall it not be said, that "unto you a child is born?" The Lord regardeth not the greatness of men, but hath respect unto the lowly. But you are illiterate you say, you cannot understand much. Be it so, but unto the shepherds Christ was born, and their simplicity did not hinder their receiving him, but even helped them to it. Be it so with yourself: receive gladly the simple truth as it is in Jesus. The Lord hath exalted one chosen out of the people. No aristocratic Christ have I to preach to you, but the Saviour of the people, the friend of publicans and sinners. Jesus is the true "poor men's friend;" he is "a covenant for the people," given to be "a leader and commander to the people." To you is Jesus given. O that each heart might truly say, to me is Jesus born; for it I truly believe in Jesus, unto me Christ is born, and I may be as sure of it as if an angel announced it, since the Scripture tells me that if I believe in Jesus He is mine.

After the angel had said "to you," he went on to say, "it shall be to all people." But our translation is not accurate, the Greek is, "it shall be to all the people." This refers most assuredly to the Jewish nation; there can be no question about that; if any one looks at the original, he will not find so large and wide an expression as that given by our translators. It should be rendered "to all the people." And here let us speak a word for the Jews. How long and how sinfully has the Christian church despised the most honorable amongst the nations! How barbarously has Israel been handled by the so-called church! I felt my spirit burn indignantly within me in Rome when I stood in the Jew's quarter, and heard of the cruel indignities which Popery has heaped upon the Jews, even until recently. At this hour there stands in the Jew's quarter a church built right in front of the entrance to it, and into this the unhappy Jews were driven forcibly on certain occasions. To this church they were compelled to subscribe—subscribe, mark you, as worshippers of the one invisible God, to the support of a system which is as leprous with idolatry as were the Canaanites whom the Lord abhorred. Paganism is not more degrading than Romanism. Over the door of this church is placed, in their own tongue in the Hebrew, these words: —"All day long have I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying generation;" how, by such an insult as that, could they hope to convert the Jew. The Jew saw everywhere idols which his soul abhorred, and he loathed the name of Christ, because he associated it with idol worship, and I do not wonder that he did. I praise the Jew that he could not give up his own simple theism, and the worship of the true God, for such a base, degrading superstition as that which Rome presented to him. Instead of thinking it a wonder of unbelief that the Jew is not a Christian, I honor him for his faith and his courageous resistance of a fascinating heathenism. If Romanism be Christianity I am not, neither could I be, a Christian. It were a more manly thing to be a simple believer in one God, or even an honest doubter upon all religion, than worship such crowds of gods and goddesses as Popery has set up, and to bow, as she does, before rotten bones and dead men's winding sheets. Let the true Christian church think lovingly of the Jew, and with respectful earnestness tell him the true gospel; let her sweep away superstition, and set before him the one gracious God in the Trinity of his divine Unity; and the day shall yet come when the Jews, who were the first apostles to the Gentiles, the first missionaries to us who were afar off; shall be gathered in again. Until that shall be, the fullness of the church's glory can never come. Matchless benefits to the world are bound up with the restoration of Israel; their gathering in shall be as life from the dead. Jesus the Saviour is the joy of all nations, but let not the chosen race be denied their peculiar share of whatever promise holy writ has recorded with a special view to them. The woes which their sins brought upon them have fallen thick and heavily; and even so let the richest blessings distil upon them.

Although our translation is not literally correct, it, nevertheless, expresses a great truth, taught plainly in the context; and, therefore, we will advance another step. The coming of Christ is a joy to all people. It is so, for the fourteenth verse says: "On earth peace," which is a wide and even unlimited expression. It adds, "Good will towards"—not Jews, but "men" —all men. The word is the generic name of the entire race, and there is no doubt that the coming of Christ does bring joy to all sorts of people. It brings a measure of joy even to those who are not Christians. Christ does not bless them in the highest and truest sense, but the influence of his teaching imparts benefits of an inferior sort, such as they are capable of receiving; for wherever the gospel is proclaimed, it is no small blessing to all the population. Note this fact: there is no land beneath the sun where there is an open Bible and a preached gospel, where a tyrant long can hold his place. It matters not who he be, whether pope or king; let the pulpit be used properly for the preaching of Christ crucified, let the Bible be opened to be read by all men, and no tyrant can long rule in peace. England owes her freedom to the Bible; and France will never possess liberty, lasting and well-established, till she comes to reverence the gospel, which too long she has rejected. There is joy to all mankind where Christ comes. The religion of Jesus makes men think, and to make men think is always dangerous to a despot's power. The religion of Jesus Christ sets a man free from superstition; when he believes in Jesus, what cares he for Papal excommunications, or whether priests give or withhold their absolution? The man no longer cringes and bows down; he is no more willing, like a beast, to be led by the nose; but, learning to think for himself and becoming a man, he disdains the childish fears which once held him in slavery. Hence, where Jesus comes, even if men do not receive him as the Saviour, and so miss the fullest joy, yet they get a measure of benefit; and I pray God that everywhere his gospel may be so proclaimed, and that so many may be actuated by the spirit of it, that it may be better for all mankind. If men receive Christ, there will be no more oppression: the true Christian does to others as he would that they should do to him, and there is no more contention of classes, nor grinding of the faces of the poor. Slavery must go down where Christianity rules, and mark you, if Romanism be once destroyed, and pure Christianity shall govern all nations, war itself must come to an end; for if there be anything which this book denounces and counts the hugest of all crimes, it is the crime of war. Put up thy sword into thy sheath, for hath not he said, "Thou shalt not kill," and he meant not that it was a sin to kill one but a glory to kill a million, but he meant that bloodshed on the smallest or largest scale was sinful. Let Christ govern, and men shall break the bow and cut the spear in sunder, and burn the chariot in the fire. It is joy to all nations that Christ is born, the Prince of Peace, the King who rules in righteousness.

But, beloved, the greatest joy is to those who know Christ as a Saviour. Here the song rises to a higher and sublimer note. Unto us indeed a child is born, if we can say that he is our "Saviour who is Christ the Lord." Let me ask each of you a few personal questions. Are your sins forgiven you for his name's sake? Is the head of the serpent bruised in your soul? Does the seed of the woman reign in sanctifying power over your nature? Oh then, you have the joy that is to all the people in the truest form of it; and, dear brother, dear sister, the further you submit yourself to Christ the Lord, the more completely you know him, and are like him, the fuller will your happiness become. Surface joy is to those who live where the Saviour is preached; but the great deeps, the great fathomless deeps of solemn joy which glisten and sparkle with delight, are for such as know the Saviour, obey the anointed one, and have communion with the Lord himself. He is the most joyful man who is the most Christly man. I wish that some Christians were more truly Christians: they are Christians and something else; it were much better if they were altogether Christians. Perhaps you know the legend, or perhaps true history of the awakening of St. Augustine. He dreamed that he died, and went to the gates of heaven, and the keeper of the gates said to him, "Who are you?" And he answered, "Christianus sum," I am a Christian. But the porter replied, "No, you are not a Christian, you are a Ciceronian, for your thoughts and studies were most of all directed to the works of Cicero and the classics, and you neglected the teaching of Jesus. We judge men here by that which most engrossed their thoughts, and you are judged not to be a Christian but a Ciceronian." When Augustine awoke, he put aside the classics which he had studied, and the eloquence at which he had aimed, and he said, "I will be a Christian and a theologian;" and from that time he devoted his thoughts to the word of God, and his pen and his tongue to the instruction of others in the truth. Oh I would not have it said of any of you, "Well, he may be somewhat Christian, but he is far more a keen money-getting tradesman." I would not have it said, "Well, he may be a believer in Christ, but he is a good deal more a politician." Perhaps he is a Christian, but he is most at home when he is talking about science, farming, engineering, horses, mining, navigation, or pleasure-taking. No, no, you will never know the fullness of the joy which Jesus brings to the soul, unless under the power of the Holy Spirit you take the Lord your Master to be your All in all, and make him the fountain of your intensest delight. "He is my Saviour, my Christ, my Lord," be this your loudest boast. Then will you know the joy which the angel's song predicts for men.

III. But I must pass on. The last thing in the text is The SIGN. The shepherds did not ask for a sign, but one was graciously given. Sometimes it is sinful for us to require as an evidence what God's tenderness may nevertheless see fit to give as an aid to faith. Wilful unbelief shall have no sign, but weak faith shall have compassionate aid. The sign that the joy of the world had come was this,—they were to go to the manger to find the Christ in it, and he was to be the sign. Every circumstance is therefore instructive. The babe was found "wrapped in swaddling clothes." Now, observe, as you look at this infant, that there is not the remotest appearance of temporal power here. Mark the two little puny arms of a little babe that must be carried if it go. Alas, the nations of the earth look for joy in military power. By what means can we make a nation of soldiers? The Prussian method is admirable; we must have thousands upon thousands of armed men and big cannon and ironclad vessels to kill and destroy by wholesale. Is it not a nation's pride to be gigantic in arms? What pride flushes the patriot's cheek when he remembers that his nation can murder faster than any other people. Ah, foolish generation, ye are groping in the flames of hell to find your heaven, raking amid blood and bones for the foul thing which ye call glory. A nation's joy can never lie in the misery of others. Killing is not the path to prosperity; huge armaments are a curse to the nation itself as well as to its neighbors. The joy of a nation is a golden sand over which no stream of blood has ever rippled. It is only found in that river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God. The weakness of submissive gentleness is true power. Jesus founds his eternal empire not on force but on love. Here, O ye people, see your hope; the mild pacific prince, whose glory is his self-sacrifice, is our true benefactor.

But look again, and you shall observe no pomp to dazzle you. Is the child wrapped in purple and fine linen? Ah, no. Sleeps he in a cradle of gold? The manger alone is his shelter. No crown is upon the babe's head, neither does a coronet surround the mother's brow. A simple maiden of Galilee, and a little child in ordinary swaddling bands, it is all you see.

"Bask not in courtly bower,
Or sunbright hall of power,
Pass Babel quick,
and seek the holy land.
From robes of Tyrian dye,
Turn with undazzled eye
To Bethlehem's glade, and by the manger stand."

Alas, the nations are dazzled with a vain show. The pomp of empires, the pageants of kings are their delight. How can they admire those gaudy courts, in which too often glorious apparel, decorations, and rank stand in the stead of virtue, chastity, and truth. When will the people cease to be children? Must they for ever crave for martial music which stimulates to violence, and delight in a lavish expenditure which burdens them with taxation? These make not a nation great or joyous. Bah! how has the bubble burst across yon narrow sea. A bubble empire has collapsed. Ten thousand bayonets and millions of gold proved but a sandy foundation for a Babel throne. Vain are the men who look for joy in pomp; it lies in truth and righteousness, in peace and salvation, of which yonder new-born prince in the garments of a peasant child is the true symbol.

Neither was there wealth to be seen at Bethlehem. Here in this quiet island, the bulk of men are comfortably seeking to acquire their thousands by commerce and manufactures. We are the sensible people who follow the main chance, and are not to be deluded by ideas of glory; we are making all the money we can, and wondering that other nations waste so much in fight. The main prop and pillar of England's joy is to be found, as some tell us, in the Three per Cents., in the possession of colonies, in the progress of machinery, in steadily increasing our capital. Is not Mammon a smiling deity? But, here, in the cradle of the world's hope at Bethlehem, I see far more of poverty than wealth; I perceive no glitter of gold, or spangle of silver. I perceive only a poor babe, so poor, so very poor, that he is in a manger laid; and his mother is a mechanic's wife, a woman who wears neither silk nor gem. Not in your gold, O Britons, will ever lie your joy, but in the gospel enjoyed by all classes, the gospel freely preached and joyfully received. Jesus, by raising us to spiritual wealth, redeems us from the chains of Mammon, and in that liberty gives us joy.

And here, too, I see no superstition. I know the artist paints angels in the skies, and surrounds the scene with a mysterious light, of which tradition's tongue of falsehood has said that it made midnight as bright as noon. This is fiction merely; there was nothing more there than the stable, the straw the oxen ate, and perhaps the beasts themselves, and the child in the plainest, simplest manner, wrapped as other children are; the cherubs were invisible and of haloes there were none. Around this birth of joy was no sign of superstition: that demon dared not intrude its tricks and posturings into the sublime spectacle: it would have been there as much out of place as a harlequin in the holy of holies. A simple gospel, a plain gospel, as plain as that babe wrapped in the commonest garments, is this day the only hope for men. Be ye wise and believe in Jesus, and abhor all the lies of Rome, and inventions of those who ape her detestable abominations.

Nor does the joy of the world lie in philosophy. You could not have made a schoolmen's puzzle of Bethlehem if you had tried to do so; it was just a child in the manger and a Jewish woman looking on and nursing it, and a carpenter standing by. There was no metaphysical difficulty there, of which men could say, "A doctor of divinity is needed to explain it, and an assembly of divines must expound it." It is true the wise men came there, but it was only to adore and offer gifts; would that all the wise had been as wise as they. Alas, human subtlety has disputed over the manger, and logic has darkened counsel with its words. But this is one of man's many inventions; God's work was sublimely simple. Here was "The Word made flesh" to dwell among us, a mystery for faith, but not a football for argument. Mysterious, yet the greatest simplicity that was ever spoken to human ears, and seen by mortal eyes. And such is the gospel, in the preaching of which our apostle said, "we use great plainness of speech." Away, away, away with your learned sermons, and your fine talk, and your pretentious philosophies; these never created a jot of happiness in this world. Fine-spun theories are fair to gaze on, and to bewilder fools, but they are of no use to practical men, they comfort not the sons of toil, nor cheer the daughters of sorrow. The man of common sense, who feels the daily rub and tear of this poor world, needs richer consolation than your novel theologies, or neologies, can give him. In a simple Christ, and in a simple faith in that Christ, there is a peace deep and lasting; in a plain, poor man's gospel there is a joy and a bliss unspeakable, of which thousands can speak, and speak with confidence, too, for they declare what they do know, and testify what they have seen.

I say, then, to you who would know the only true peace and lasting joy, come ye to the babe of Bethlehem, in after days the Man of Sorrows, the substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. Come, ye little children, ye boys and girls, come ye; for he also was a boy. "The holy child Jesus" is the children's Saviour, and saith still, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not. Come hither, ye maidens, ye who are still in the morning of your beauty, and, like Mary, rejoice in God your Saviour. The virgin bore him on her bosom, so come ye and bear him in your hearts, saying, "Unto us a child is born, onto us a son is given." And you, ye men in the plenitude of your strength, remember how Joseph cared for him, and watched with reverent solicitude his tender years; be you to his cause as a Father and a helper; sanctify your strength to his service. And ye women advanced in years, ye matrons and widows, come like Anna and bless the Lord that you have seen the salvation of Israel, and ye hoar heads, who like Simeon are ready to depart, come ye and take the Saviour in your arms, adoring him as your Saviour and your all. Ye shepherds, ye simple hearted, ye who toil for your daily bread, come and adore the Saviour; and stand not back ye wise men, ye who know by experience and who by meditation peer into deep truth, come ye, and like the sages of the East bow low before his presence, and make it your honor to pay honor to Christ the Lord. For my own part, the incarnate God is all my hope and trust. I have seen the world's religion at the fountain head, and my heart has sickened within me; I come back to preach, by God's help, yet more earnestly the gospel, the simple gospel of the Son of Man. Jesus, Master, I take thee to be mine for ever! May all in this house, through the rich grace of God, be led to do the same, and may they all be thine, great Son of God, in the day of thine appearing, for thy love's sake. Amen.

C. H. Spurgeon

22 December 2011

The Christmas story, by some Kiwi kids

posted by Dan Phillips

(Not too heavy today.)

May get a detail or two off, but it is awfully cute:

(Thanks, Julie)

Feliz Navidad, everyone. Hope you can exalt Christ the newborn king with fellow-believers this weekend, and wherever you are. Remember:
  • No Nativity, no Good Friday
  • No Good Friday, no Easter
  • No  Nativity, Good Friday and Easter, no salvation and no Gospel
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21 December 2011

Open Letter to Jesus Christ

by Frank Turk

Dear Jesus,

As you know, I have spent this year blogging Open Letters to various public figures (and avoiding writing some other Open Letters like the one to the pastor who baptized me, and to my wife and my children) with the hope that these people (myself included in the list) would take a moment to listen to someone from outside of their personal echo chambers.  Someday, we'll all know how well that turned out -- both from the receiving end when the great Book is opened on those I blogged, and from the sending end when the great Book's folio appendix with my name on it is opened and my deeds and misdeeds are spelled out so that there's no mistake: for me to be with God's people in the final account required something and someone much more that I have been.  My hope is that they reflect on these things which, I think, in some way they all have to have some sympathy for -- because they all claim that their primary objective is to follow you and, in some way, show you to other people.

This is the thing I am thinking of as this years closes up and I finish this series of open letters: following you, and showing you to others.  Some people think we show you to others by going big -- big dreams, big churches, big books about big subjects like leadership and productivity as a demonstration of stewardship.  Some people think it's in the big special effects which we make much of you -- be it in the inexplicable supernatural by casting out demons, or command healing, or other the other side of the fence in feeding 5000 people or rebuilding a third-world nation.  I think it's funny how American all that really is -- that go-big or go-home attitude of accomplishments as if what we are set out to do here is accomplish something which the Bible says doesn't happen until after you have cast Sin, Death and the Devil into the lake of fire.  There's nothing really Christian about that stuff even though Christians have done a pretty good job of it since you left us here to baptize and make disciples.  It's like we badly-translated the place where Moses says, "You shall therefore be Holy, for I am Holy," to say, "therefore, because I am so Big, you must be Big."

See: I think that's why you came the way you did.  John sort of rushes over this because for him, the "good part" of the Incarnation was the Godness of you -- that You, who is at the Father's side, has revealed to us the Father, and are one with Him.  That's an important point, and one I think these big doers all get well enough.  But the way you actually came -- which John rolls out in one word ("ἐγένετο") but Matthew and Luke roll out in chapters of reference and detail -- is a sort of open letter on the whole thing, the whole enterprise.

You didn't come big, did you?  Not big as we measure it, to be sure -- because if we measured big by the standard of the Nativity, the conception and birth of children would not be treated as such a passe thing by us.  You came small.  You came so small that in spite of the fact that angels announced your birth, and pagan sky-watchers could recognize the star which was set in the heavens to mark your birth and would came to worship you, all of Bethlehem did not turn out to greet you.  The advisors to Herod could not be bothered to come and see for themselves if the King of the Jews had been born.

You came small.

Another way to say that, I think, is that you came in a deliberate or single-minded way: not in a way which is too big to grasp.  I mean: you could have followed the Holy Spirit, right?  We could have first had Pentecost in which all of Jerusalem was speaking in tongues and raising the dead, and then you could have come on a white horse with a great sword in your mouth to judge the nations, and then set right your Kingdom forever -- and the outcome would have been just fine: an eternal kingdom where you rule over your people and the evil are justly set under your footstool.

But you didn't work it out that way.  You didn't want it that way, if we believe Peter and that crazy cousin of yours, John.  You worked it out so that you came as the least of the least so that you could be the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world -- born in a stable like any decent lamb, and discovered by shepherds, and then finally put to death at the hands of evil men for the sake of paying the price for their sins for God's sake.

Now, as I write this, the fire is burning in my fireplace.  I have a robe on, and warm pants, and I have a full tummy.  In spite of being "on vacation" I have also worked every business day in the last week, and I'll get paid on Friday.  I haven't been uncomfortable in decades -- including the few times I have been really, really sick -- because frankly I live better than Herod, in better conditions and with more security.  And when I consider that feeding trough you were laid in to sleep, and the rags you were wrapped in for warmth, and the world you chose to be born into -- because let's face it, you could have waited 2000 years more and been born in America where the worst discomfort is choosing to drink water when you eat out rather than soda -- I read an open letter regarding my own big dreams.  And it puts to shame the fact that in the last week I did more to pad my own nest than I did to find someone to tell about you and make them a disciple of you.

I thank you, God, for your humility which intentionally comes to us as an open letter, a written word for us to consider.  You could have been born into the house of David in a palace of cedar, and you chose instead to be born without a home in the city of David, with no place for you in the inn -- for no other reason than to show us that you do not need our help to save the world, but you come to us to save it anyway.  And you call us not to be the greatest, but the least -- to be a slave like yourself, utterly used for the sake of something other than our own big plans.

So my open letter to you, Jesus, is to ask that your open letter to us do more for us than my small collection of pointed statements could ever do.  Since my open letters made no impact on those I wrote them to, God, let yours dispatch our pride, and arrogance, and super-sized vision casting, and self-promotion, and politics, and theological posturing, and glib epithets, and moral inertia, and cowardice, and fear of being wrong, or fear of being seen as even merely mistaken, and all the other misdemeanors and offenses we invent to make much of ourselves, especially under the cover of making much of you.

Forgive us, God, and cause us to repent.  If it meant so much that you were born in a stable to do it, and would die on a cross to do it, and would overcome and undo death to do it, then please God: overcome the internet and our fragmented church culture to do it.  Someone on the internet is wrong, Jesus -- and sometimes it is me.  May every person who calls on your name this year see how true this is of himself, and let him publicly repudiate his misdeeds as he has publicly perpetrated them.

My thanks for this last year, Lord, and my life.  Help me not to squander it, and to follow you from the stable to the cross to the grave in whatever place you put me.

Glory to you, and peace to those upon whom your favor rests.

Your undeserving servant,

Frank Turk

20 December 2011

The Pastoral Epistle for Pastors, by John Kitchen; and other terrific discounts

by Dan Phillips

Here's a little note if you're looking for stocking-stuffers for a pastor, Bible teacher or seminary student (at least). Kress Biblical Resources is offering four books at a staggering 75% discount for the Christmas month of December for American buyers.

I only have any hands-on familiarity with one of the books: John Kitchen's The Pastoral Epistle for Pastors. John is pastor of a CMA church in Ohio. My first contact with John came when I reviewed his commentary on Proverbs. That began a cyber-friendship, which led to John's gracious agreement to read and critique the manuscript of my own book of Proverbs studies.

This volume is 623 pages long, and covers 1-2 Timothy and Titus. It is endorsed by Simon Kistemaker, Warren Wiersbe, Robert Gromacki, and Dick Mayhue. John is a very careful reader and commenter. Kitchen brings to my mind R. C. H. Lenski in this regard: he pores over every word and point of grammar with great care and reverence. John has a high regard for the text, and loves God. One of the qualities that stood out as I read John's volume on Proverbs, and the manuscript for his forthcoming book on Colossians, is how unhurriedly he deals with Scripture. By that I mean he deals with each verse with devoted concentration, turning over each word and each grammatical, syntactical, doctrinal facet to the best of his considerable ability.

The book is well-produced, as I've learned to expect of Kress. John crafts it to serve as commentary, counselor and coach, gearing the text for practical pastoral application. And so the introduction, while solid and sound, is not designed to deal with every critical theory that has ever been hatched. It is 19 pages long, and crowned with four pages of bibliography (in addition to a 9-page annotated bibliography added as an appendix).

The text is spotted with "Ministry Maxims" boxes, making pointed applications of various passages. For instance, the "Ministry Maxim" on 1 Tim. 1:20 is "Truth that is not protected is truth that is not truly believed" (80). The note on 1 Tim. 6:4 is "Ignorance and arrogance are seldom separated" (257). Indeed. Each section has a set of "Digging Deeper" questions meant to point to further thought and interaction with the text.

John may not be the full Calmaniac that I am, so you might want to "Calvinize" the text here and there. Though I haven't read it all, I've read a lot of John's careful work in Proverbs and Colossians, and there's nothing of the antagonism one gets (say) in Lenski. If I kept only 5-point Calvinist commentaries, I'd lose some of the best volumes in my library.

Kitchen's work is unfailingly reverent and careful, and I could see using this as a study guide for an elder's group, or for personal enrichment. In fact, I mentioned the annotated bibliographical appendix — that is actually one of five appendices. The others provide a pastor's self-guided study of the Pastoral Epistles, another on training local church leaders from these epistles, a topical guide to the ministry maxims, and another on preaching/teaching these epistles.

And now, for December only, if you use the code BR60833557256, you will get a 75% discount. I'm not great at The Maths, but I think that's about $10, which is a terrific buy.

That same discount also applies to these books:
Just enter the code BR60833557256 to receive your 75% discount on checkout.

The sale applies only to these four books.

NOTE: If any of you have read any of them, please chime in. I'm particularly interested in hearing from anyone who's used the James study by Varner.

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18 December 2011

Have a Merry Christmas

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following Excerpt is from a sermon titled "Mary's Song," preached Christmas morning 1865 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.

his is a season when all men expect us to be joyous. We compliment each other with the desire that we may have a "Merry Christmas."

Some Christians who are a little squeamish, do not like the word "merry." It is a right good old Saxon word, having the joy of childhood and the mirth of manhood in it, it brings before one's mind the old song of the waits, and the midnight peal of bells, the holly and the blazing log. I love it for its place in that most tender of all parables, where it is written, that, when the long-lost prodigal returned to his father safe and sound, "They began to be merry."

This is the season when we are expected to be happy; and my heart's desire is, that in the highest and best sense, you who are believers may be "merry."

Mary's heart was merry within her; but here was the mark of her joy, it was all holy merriment, it was every drop of it sacred mirth. It was not such merriment as worldlings will revel in to-day and to-morrow, but such merriment as the angels have around the throne, where they sing, "Glory to God in the highest," while we sing "On earth peace, goodwill towards men."

Such merry hearts have a continual feast. I want you, ye children of the bride-chamber, to possess to-day and to-morrow, yea, all your days, the high and consecrated bliss of Mary, that you may not only read her words, but use them for yourselves, ever experiencing their meaning: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior."

C. H. Spurgeon

16 December 2011

Open Letter to John MacArthur

by Frank Turk

Dear Dr. MacArthur,

My dear friend Dan has already written you an open letter this year, and one may think that's the end of it as he has given you a friendly encouragement to do something really hard for the sake of the faithful as part of finishing strong.  However, what Dan had to say has absolutely nothing to do with what I have to say, so I'll say this bit myself.

I've had the great pleasure to visit SoCal twice in the last year or so, and both times I got to tour the GTY offices because, well, I was living in Phil's house for the week and from my perspective it's always instructive to see where the magic happens (and we go see Disney while we're there, too, since we're middle American tourists).  Both times I had the pleasure to chat with the staff and both times I got to view your office at GTY -- and I found that I had to simply just walk out quickly.  I had this really unnatural fear that if we stuck around too long, you'd show up and I'd have to meet you face to face.

Now, honestly: I'm not a fan-boy.  I can remember that the last time I was at T4G I was walking from the hotel to the conference and as I turned to my left, the guy crowding up on me was CJ Mahaney, and I didn't get all creeped out.  I didn't grab for my pen to get an autograph.  He's a guy, I'm a guy, and we were walking down the hall together.  No Problem.

I once rode in an elevator with John Eldredge when he was a big name at CBA and I was a little disappointed at what a short little fellow he was, and that he needed a handler to make his way around the conference center, but I wasn't overcome with awe for a guy who has sold a million books.  Ergun Caner once forced his book on me back when people thought he was an ex-jihadi and he told me (without every talking to me about what I believed) that everything I knew about the Crusades was wrong.  He made me feel the way the guy selling scented anointing oil made me feel, which is not star-struck.  My wife once (accidentally) cut in line to get Third Day's autograph (she thought she was meeting the sales rep from Provident), and we had a good laugh about that.  I didn't get all giddy when she handed me Mac Powell's and Mike Lee's autographs.

But when I stood in your office, I was remembering when I was a very young Christian, living in a place called Sackett's Harbor.  I barely had a local church, and I was working at a thankless job for a guy who hated me, and I had to drive 20 minutes to work every day at 4:30 in the morning.  On the way back from work at 3 PM, I would hear J. Vernon McGee.  But on the way in -- and I remember almost every drive as a drive through icy cold in the snow-covered hell-bow of NY State and Lake Ontario -- you were preaching through the Bible.

I wasn't in the worst place anyone has ever been.  I wasn't homeless, or unemployed, or without prospects, or unsaved.  But I was disoriented spiritually, and undisciplined, and unfocused; and because of the situation I had at work, I was also depressed, and looking for some sort of hope in a world which, frankly, could care less about me.  And I was still making the rookie mistakes a newly-saved adult makes every time.

What happened to me through your preaching was not personal discipleship -- it couldn't be.  You don't know me, and you could not have known me or my problems then.  But through the work of GTY assembling your sermons for the radio on a daily basis you saved my spiritual life.  You planted a seed in me which others were also working to plant, and which others still cultivated for a good harvest as I later became a husband and father and leader at work.

And in doing this, you really didn't do this for me: you did it for Christ.  I get that -- I get it that you don't really preach with anyone in mind but with Christ in mind so that those who are listening, whosoever they are, will hear it and come.  I get it that you sort of did it to me and not for me.  But when I think of the massive benefit I have received simply because you were a faithful servant to Jesus, I am taken aback.

The only other man in my spiritual life to have this kind of impact on me was my pastor, and he did personally disciple me.  He did take the time to make me talk about spiritual things and consider spiritual reasons for following the narrower path rather than a wider path which would just be easier.  But here's the thing: what he was trying to tell me and do for me would never have mattered if, when I was driving in the dark and the snow each morning, you hadn't also spoken the words of life into me when I was preparing to go to a job I hated, working for a man who distrusted and denigrated me even though I was doing things for him he didn't even know he needed.  You spoke daily into my doubt and my downcast state with sound spiritual wisdom, and it changed me.

So when I stood in your office, I wasn't in the office of a famous man.  I was in the office of a fellow who saved my spiritual life, and the life of my marriage, and of my professional vocation, and the life of my family.  For me, I'm not sure I could meet you and not over-react, because you have given me so much which was so essential for the start of my walk with Christ.  Everything that has come after it is a consequence of what you have done, and the least I owe you for that is thanks.

So today: thank you.  Thank you that you taught me about Christ so I could love my wife better.  Thank you that you taught me about humility so I could think of others as more important than myself.  Thank you that you taught me how to confess my sins for the sake of repentance.  Thank you that you taught me that I have a refuge from all my doubt in Christ's resurrection.  Thank you that, with other faithful men, but in a place they could not reach me, you were  filling up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

Thank you that what you have given me makes Christmas brilliant and sweet.  I hope that this season brings good tidings of great joy to you and yours.  Thanks for being a good friend and good boss to Phil.  I look forward to seeing what God has for you as you finish the race well for the sake of your savior.